Hamlet Act-I, Scene-I Study Guide

Plot Overview

In the first scene of Hamlet, Barnardo, a guard, comes to relieve Francisco, who is his colleague. They are performing their duty as guards on the platform in the castle of Elsinore. Barnardo asks Francisco about his identity. However, Francisco orders him to stand and proves his identity first. They both exchange passwords about the weather and then replace each other. Barnardo then asks Francisco to inform Horatio and Marcellus to come early. Shortly after that, Horatio and Marcellus arrive.

Marcellus asks Barnardo about the Ghost they have seen together. He answers him in negative. He informs Barnardo that as his colleague Horatio is a philosopher, he has invited him to watch the Ghost. It is because Horatio does not believe in his account of the Ghost. In the meanwhile, the Ghost appears and all three are in a horrified state. However, they agree that this is the Ghost of the King Hamlet – the “majesty of buried Denmark.”

The men appeal to the Ghost to stop and speak to them, but it disappears. At this time, Horatio is rather astounded. He has now seen the Ghost of King Hamlet in armor he wore when he defeated the old Fortinbras, King of Norway. It seems to him that all is not well in the state of Denmark. It is because the war preparations are also underway. When Barnardo asks about the meaning of the Ghost’s arrival, Horatio recounts events of chaos in Rome shortly after the death of Julius. He says:

“In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines 113-117)

The Ghost appears again after a short time, though when Horatio tries to speak to it, it disappears hearing the crowing of the cock. As the dawn is sprouting from the east, they see the Ghost disappearing in the thin air. It seems to herald some important news. Therefore, all three of them decide to inform Prince Hamlet about the arrival of the Ghost.

Detailed Analysis


“In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 113-117)

Horatio uses a notable literary device, allusion, in these lines. He alludes to the assassination of Julius Caesar, while comparing this Ghost’s arrival to that of the eruption of the graves. Here “palmy” means growing and flourishing robustly. He refers to the time when imperial Rome was at its full glory, and became a huge empire with the rise of Julius Caesar. The murder of Caesar caused a turning point in the history of Rome. Then, it was followed by a series of events, finally leading to utter chaos and disorder.


Shakespeare has used several archaic words, as was the tradition at that time. A few examples are given below:

BARNARDO. ’Tis now strook twelf. Get thee to bed, Francisco.

FRANCISCO. For this relief much thanks. ’Tis bitter  cold,
And I am sick at heart.

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 7-9)

The words ” ’tis,” “strook,” and “twelf” are all archaic words. In fact, the very first scene is full of archaic words, as they were common during the Elizabethan period.


Marcellus tells Horatio about the Ghost in these lines. Shakespeare here uses alliteration to intensify the effect of horror of the Ghost. The word ‘w’ is repeated here in this line as “with us to watch.”

“Therefore I have entreated him along,
With us to watch the minutes of this night.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 26-27)


Horatio compares the situation of the preparation of war with that of chaos in Rome when Julius Caesar was killed, as he states, “A little ere the mightiest Julius fell.” That is why it is exactly like the chaos that prevailed in Denmark following the assassination of King Hamlet. While the same situation has been demonstrated as Shakespeare puts it that the “heaven and earth together demonstrated / Unto our climatures and countrymen” (Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 124-125).

Consonance and Assonance

There are several consonances in this scene, the objective of which is to create a musical quality as well as raise the specter of horror. Bernardo here calls Horatio and says:

“And let us once again assail your ears”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 32)

And then again as “When yond same start that’s westward from the pole,” and “The bell then beating,” where the sounds of ‘s’ and ‘b’ have been repeated respectively (Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines 36-39).


As this is the first scene, it announces the entrance of two characters, Barnardo and Francisco, who are guards. They are guarding a post in the fort of Elsinore, which is a sort of platform in the castle. Both the characters call each other with their respective names – an act that shows how Shakespeare used to introduce his characters to his Elizabethan audience. Two other characters in this scene are Marcellus and Horatio, who have come to replace Barnardo and Francisco from their night watch.

Although other three guards are of similar mental capability, Horatio is not only close to Prince Hamlet, but has superior mental faculty to the other three characters. Marcellus admits, “Though art a scholar.” Then he encourages him to speak to the ghost. These are just ordinary characters, and they set the stage for the further action of the play.

  • Bernardo: He is a guard and colleague of Francisco. He is the first one to open the play, and is also the first to mention the arrival of the ghost.
  • Francisco: Francisco replaces Barnardo from his watch. He does not appear much in the first scene.
  • Marcellus: Marcellus and Horatio are two guards, who replace both Bernardo and Francisco. Between them, Marcellus is the most quizzical fellow. He asks several questions from Horatio about the Ghost and its arrival.
  • Horatio: Horatio is a type of a philosopher, and friend of Prince Hamlet. As he is also a skeptic, first he does not believe on the account of Francisco and Bernardo regarding the Ghost. When he sees the Ghost with his own eyes, he tries to talk to it saying, “I charge thee speak,” but it does not respond before disappearing. Then he compares the situation of Denmark with that of Rome before the death of Julius Caesar. He also talks about informing Hamlet about the Ghost, as it seems the Ghost would talk to him.


A cursory reading of the first scene makes it clear there is an external conflict between Denmark and Norway, and also an internal conflict which ensued after the appearance of the Ghost. The Renaissance audiences could believe that a Ghost appears for a definite and terrible reason – not for anything good. Thus, this scene actually establishes the setting and background information of the ensuing conflict.

Deus Ex Machina

The entry of the Ghost at this stage is an excellent example of deus ex machina. The conversation between the first three characters Horatio, Barnardo, and Marcellus shows that there is something wrong in the state of Denmark. However, they are not aware of what is going on. As Horatio senses some danger lurking, he immediately thinks of rushing to Hamlet saying:

“Let us impart what we have seen tonight,
Unto you young Hamlet, for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines 170-173)


Shakespeare used a rhetorical device hendiadys in which an author expresses a complex idea by joining two words with a conjunction. It is found in the words “gross and scope.”

“But in the gross and scope of mine opinion”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 67)

The objective of using hendiadys in the first scene is to make the scene more verbose, so that the complexity of the situation could pose a serious challenge to the audience.


Using imagery is another way to heighten the interest of the audience, as Shakespeare has used in this line.

“This bodes some strange eruption to our state.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 68)

In this line, Horatio uses visual imagery, making a claim that the wandering Ghost “bodes some strange eruption to our state.” The visual imagery shows the eruption of the situation that has turned with the arrival of the Ghost. Undoubtedly, this imagery is vivid, creative, and metaphorical in a sense that a country or state cannot literally “erupt” just like a volcano.


Metaphors are used to compare things in order to heighten effect. The first scene is full of metaphors, the first being:

“Doth make the night joint laborer with the day?”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 77)

Marcellus uses this metaphor to explain the difference between day and night, and whether they both work together. In fact, here he is referring to the preparations of warriors for war, which is a twenty-hour operation.

“Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 98)

Horatio says that young Prince Fortinbras of Norway has gathered soldiers. He uses the metaphor of lawless volunteers who have come to aid him in is fight. It shows he has just gathered a bunch of fighters:

“Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 99)


The mood is tense, since the opening scene takes place at midnight and in the darkness. It evokes a mystery world in which there is a confrontation between unknowns, which is the real area of concern for this play. From the beginning, the sense of mystery and the underlying suspense pervade the entire play.


Meter is a technical device, which has a strong relationship with the overall theme of the piece. Shakespeare was a master in dealing with meter, and he demonstrated this mastery in Hamlet by using iambic pentameter. For example:

“Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines, 115-116)

He has used iambic pentameter (five iambs in each line), which can be observed in the lines given above.


Personification is a term of comparison in which a lifeless object is shown as if it is alive. For example:

“But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Lines 165-166)

By the end of this scene, Horatio makes use of another literary device, personification, as he describes the arrival of dawn. We know that morning cannot wear clothing, or walk; however, Horatio here uses personification in order to depict the action and color of the rising sun in the morning.


Kairos is a rhetorical device that means appropriate time for an action, or – according to Merriam-Webster – “opportune time. The character of Horatio is a complete example of this device, as he is not only studded with philosophy, but also knows everything about what is metaphysical like the ghost. Hee first thinks the ghost is merely a fantasy, but when he sees it again, he recognizes its arrival as real. Then his colleagues, Marcellus and Barnardo, also see it. That is why they coax him:

“Though art scholar, speak to it, Horatio.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 43).


Shakespeare presents logos through the character of Horatio, who reasons with the existing situation that Marcellus explains to him and inquires about. He states that, because the father of Fortinbras lost some lands legally to King Hamlet, young Fortinbras wants to take it back. That is why it

“Is the main motive of our preparations.”

(Hamlet, Act-I, Scene-I, Line 105).

This is the use of logos by Horatio to convince his audience, Marcellus and Barnardo.


Shakespeare has given very few directions. There is only one place mentioned – Elsinore, which is a platform in the fort. However, the overall conversation between the characters shows that the action shown in the play has taken place in the capital city of Denmark, in the royal castle of Elsinore.

The country is preparing for war against Norway, whose ruler Fortinbras is doing the same to launch an attack on Denmark in order to take back areas lost by his father to King Hamlet in a past war. However, in the middle of these preparations, the Ghost appears and changes the very course of the action in this play.


The tone of this scene is mysterious and tense. The playwright creates this tone, by not just naming things, but by having them appear as well. Denmark’s preparations for war also create an air of mystery. Nevertheless, readers do not know yet why the Ghost appears, whether it is a spirit or a harbinger of a transforming political situation in Denmark, or something else. But it makes the situation tense. Therefore, the tone of this scene is not only fully of mystery, but also tension created with the inclusion of several other devices, specifically deus ex machina as explained above.